Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mary, Mother of God, a Common Protestant and Catholic Confession

As our Catholic readers know, this is the Solemnity (Holy Day) of Mary, Mother of God, one of the more significant liturgical celebrations in the Catholic calendar.

The confession of Mary as “Mother of God” presents a stumbling block for some non-Catholic Christians, but curiously it never did for me.

I think it was back in the Fall of 1992 when I was sitting in a course in Ancient Church History at one of the best Calvinist seminaries in America.  Our professor, a devout Dutch Calvinist (like most of us students), was lecturing on the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus AD 431, the council that recognized Mary as “Theotokos,” “Mother of God” (or more literally, “Bearer of God”).  He began to address the question, Can Calvinists confess Mary as “Mother of God”?  He answered in the affirmative, granted that one understood this not as a claim for Mary’s motherhood of divinity itself, but in the sense that Mary was mother of Jesus, who is truly God.  And that, of course, is precisely how the Catholic Church understands the term.

So far from being a cause of division, the common confession of Mary as “Mother of God” should unite all Christians, and distinguish Christian orthodoxy from various confusions of it, such as Arianism (the denial that Jesus was God) or Nestorianism (in which Mary mothers only the human nature of Jesus but not his whole person).

Happy feast day to all!

A brief commentary on the Readings:

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Feast of the Holy Family

The Sunday that falls in the Octave of the Solemnity of Christmas is dedicated to celebrating the Holy Family.  The Readings for this Sunday focus on the rights and responsibilities of family members toward each other, and the Gospel focuses on the role of the “most forgotten” member of the Holy Family, St. Joseph, who cared for and protected the Blessed Mother and infant Jesus through the dangerous early years of Jesus’ childhood.

1.  The First Reading is Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14:

God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Was Joseph really suspicious of Mary? Another view from the Early Church

 On Christmas Eve, the Gospel reading is taken from once again from Matthew 1.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:18–21).
Instead of rehashing the last Sunday readings reflection let's focus on a different aspect of the story: Joseph's desire to divorce Mary quietly. 

Why was Joseph, in the angel's words, "afraid" to marry Mary?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jim West, the "Virgin Birth", the Fathers, and Zwingli

My friend Jim West tweeted,
ALERT: it isn't 'the virgin birth'. It's the virginal conception. It's an important distinction.#RespectAccuracy.
I can't help but tweak him a bit for his tweet. 

Let me just say that, actually, according to the earliest Christian sources it is the Virgin Birth. And the Protestant Reformers agreed with them on that. 

From the earliest times, Christians interpreted the Gospel tradition as indicating that Mary remained a virgin in conception, in labor, and after Jesus' birth. 

For example. . . 

Protoevangelium of James (2nd cent.)

In the Protoevangelium of James (2nd cent.), we read an apocryphal account of Salome doubting that Mary's virginity remained intact after the birth of Jesus. She said, "As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth" (Prot. Jas. 19). Without getting into all the uncomfortable details, she ends up believing.

"Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin. . ." (Contr. Ar., 2:70; NPNF2 4:386-87). 
"For being born of a mother who, although she conceived without being touched by man and always remained thus untouched, in virginity conceiving, in virginity bringing forth, in virginity dying, had nevertheless been espoused to a handicraftsman, [Christ] extinguished all the inflated pride of carnal nobility."  (De catech. rud. 22.40; NPNF1 3:307). 
Leo the Great 
And by a new nativity He was begotten, conceived by a Virgin, born of a Virgin, without paternal desire, without injury to the mother’s chastity. . . (Sermon 22.2; NPNF2 12A: 130).
Many others could be cited, e.g., Jerome, Epiphanius of Salamis, Didymus the Blind, Ambrose of Milan, etc. I could also give multiple quotes from the fathers above but let me move on. . . 

Notably, the Reformers agreed with these fathers. 

Martin Luther 
  • "Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that" (Luther's Works, vol. 22 [ed. J. Pelikan; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955], 23).
  • "A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ. . ." (Luther's Works, 22:14-15.
John Calvin
  • "Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ's 'brothers' are sometimes mentioned." (Harmony of Matthew, Mark & Luke on Matthew 13:55; Calvin's Commentaries [trans. W. Pringle; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949], 215). 
  • "The inference [Helvidius] drew from [Matt. 1:25] was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband . . . No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words . . . as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called 'first-born'; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. . . No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation." (cf. Pringle, 1.107).
  • "Under the word 'brethren' the Hebrews include all cousins and other relations, whatever may be the degree of affinity." (cf. Pringle, 1.283).

Huldrych Zwingli 
  • "I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the Gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin" (Zwingli Opera [Corpus Reformatorum; Berlin, 1905), 1:424.
Suffice it to say, for the bulk of Christian history, when Christians invoked the "virgin birth" they actually meant... um, er, "virgin birth".

I love you, Jim. I just wish you agreed with Zwingli more. 

; ) 

Christmas Readings

The Christmas Solemnity has distinct readings for four separate masses:  Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, and Day.  There’s such a wealth of material here to meditate on, that not everything can be covered.  In fact, there is almost an entire biblical theology in the sequence of readings of these four masses.  In what follows, I am going to offer just a few brief comments on the more salient points.

Christmas Vigil Mass

1. Reading 1 Is 62:1-5:
For Zion’s sake I will not be silent,
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her vindication shines forth like the dawn
and her victory like a burning torch.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Moses' Death, Josephus, St. Jerome, and Redaction Criticism

Next quarter I'll be teaching a graduate level course on the Pentateuch.

Of course, we will be talking, among other things, about the question of the "authorship" and "sources" of the Pentateuch.

While ancient Jewish (e.g., Josephus, A.J. 4.326; Ag. Apion, 1.37-43; m. Abot. 1:1; b. Baba Bathra 14b)) and Christian tradition (Mark 7:10; John 5:46; Mark 12:19; Rom. 10:5) attributes the five books of the Torah to Moses, a view supported in part by the Torah itself (cf., e.g., Exod. 17:14; Num 33:2; Exod. 24:4; Exod. 35:25-27; Deut. 31:9-13; cf. Josh. 8:30-32; etc.), a number of passages in it are hard to attribute to Moses himself. Chief among them, the account of Moses' death:
"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day" (Deut 34:5).
How could Moses have written this?

Interestingly, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, argued Moses wrote this but only out of humility:
"[Moses] wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God" (A.J. 4.326).
While taking a different approach than that of modern source criticism, Jerome was certainly was not unwilling to recognize that the final form of the text could have resulted from the contributions of later editors (working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of course). He writes:

“The word of God says in Genesis, ‘And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem, and lost them until this day’ [LXX Gen 35:4]. Likewise at the end of Deuteronomy, ‘So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.’ We must certainly understand by this day the time of the composition of the history, whether you prefer the view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch or that Ezra re-edited it. In either case I make no objection.” (Adv. Helv. 7; cited from NPNF2 6:6337). 
A number of introductions to the Pentateuch promote the myth that such later "redaction" or "editing" of the text was only recognized by modern Biblical scholarship. Not so!

In short, ancient interpreters, while obviously operating with a different hermeneutic and methodology than contemporary scholars have, read the text much more closely than is realized.

But to discover that you'd actually have to read such sources, not just secondary (or tertiary) characterizations of them.

Benedict XV on "True Interpretation"

“St. Jerome lays down that we have got to keep to the ''true interpretation, and that the real function of a commentator is to set forth not what he himself would like his author to mean, but what he really does mean.'”
--Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus (Encyclical Letter On the Fifteenth Centenary of the Death of St. Jerome)(1920), no. 55 citing St. Jerome, Epist. ad Pammachium, 49, 17, 7.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"A Virgin Shall Conceive": The Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

This weekend, as we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the lectionary readings have us focus on Jesus' virgin birth. Much could be said about the readings for this Sunday, but here I want to especially look at this theme (as it seems to be the intention of the lectionary).

Why is the Virgin Birth important? Is it simply the result of a mistranslation? What is the point of this Christian belief? Why is this belief so important that it appears in the Creed? Is it relevant today?

For the answers to these questions, read on. . .

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pope Francis and Biblical Interpretation

Pope Francis' recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is vigorous and beautiful reading, full of provocative statements to awaken us from spiritual slumber.  Unfortunately, it is a long document, and many may not read it through carefully.  I thought it would be helpful to clip out some of the most striking comments the Pope makes on the interpretation of Scripture.  Although he has in mind the priest-homilist, the principles he lays out also apply, mutatis mutandis, to Bible scholars and other teachers of God's word:

146. The first step [of interpretation], after calling upon the Holy Spirit in prayer, is to give our entire attention to the biblical text, which needs to be the basis of our preaching.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pope Francis and the Reforms of Benedict XVI

Today John Allen writes:
It's fashionable to style Francis as a dramatic break with the past, and there's a sense in which that's real. On the other hand, several substantive reforms for which he's getting credit actually began under Benedict XVI, and nowhere is that more true than in the arena of financial transparency. 
It was Benedict who made the historic decision in 2010 to welcome outside secular inspection by inviting Moneyval to conduct the same detailed review of anti-money-laundering protocols it carries out in other European nations. Never before had the Vatican opened its books in this fashion, and the decision met internal resistance. Some members of the old guard objected that in earlier centuries, popes had paid in blood to resist such external involvement in church affairs while Benedict was rolling out the red carpet.Benedict also created the Financial Information Authority to act as a watchdog on Vatican finances and began the process of issuing new rules designed to bring the Vatican into compliance with accepted international standards. 
Assuming that process reaches completion under Francis, he'll rightly win praise for finishing the cleanup operation. Certainly, no pope has ever done so much so quickly to recalibrate popular impressions of the church's attitude toward money or to set a new standard of simplicity for church leadership. 
At the same time, a good case can be made that if we're talking about financial glasnost -- or, for that matter, recovery from the church's child sexual abuse scandals -- the "reform pope" was actually Benedict XVI, and much of what Francis is now doing amounts to running plays crafted on his predecessor's watch.
It's nice to see Benedict getting credit where it is due to him.

Read the whole thing here, which also talks about Francis' Marian devotion, the persecution of Christians in India, and the role of Catholics in the protests in the Ukraine. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Waiting While Nothing is Going Right: 3rd Sunday of Advent

Once when I was a grade school kid, my mother and I camped in Shenandoah National Park for a week in the fall.  One morning we got up to go hiking, but the weather was bad.  It was starting to rain.  I was bummed.  My mom said to go back in the tent and pray that the weather would clear.  So I did go and pray.  But the weather didn’t clear, it only got worse.  The rain got heavier, and the wind began to pick up—slowly and first, but soon so strong that the tent was shaking and starting to leak.  Helpless, I waited in the tent and tried to read and pray while my mom put on a poncho and walked around the campsite, trying to keep the tent upright in what was turning into near-gale force winds.  This dragged on all morning, through lunch, into the afternoon.  I forgot about the hike we were missing and began to wish simply for some calm, so that I wouldn’t be afraid of the tent collapsing at any minute.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

"He Will Baptize With Fire": The Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

This Sunday as we continue to prepare for Christmas--for the coming of the Lord--the lectionary has us reflect on the gift Christ comes to bestow upon us: the Spirit of the Lord.

Here's a brief commentary on the Sunday readings

FIRST READING: Isaiah 11:1-10

The Messiah as "the Branch"
On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
Here we have a prophecy that played a pivotal role in the development of Israel's messianic hopes. While the term "messiah" is not specifically used, ancient Jews clearly linked this passage to such expectations (cf. 1 Enoch 49:3, which links the passage to the Danielic "son of man"; cf. also later rabbinic tradition, Gen. Rab. 97; Ruth Rab. 8:2). Many of the themes that appear were clearly associated with the messianic age (e.g., the age of justice, the inclusion of Gentiles, etc.)

Specifically, the prophecy here alludes to the apparent non-fulfillment of God's promise to David. Let me explain.